When I travelled to Australia last March to speak at the 25th Jewish LGBT+ World Congress in Sydney, I went on a special mini-bus day-trip to the Blue Mountains situated eighty miles north-west of the city. When we think of mountains, we often imagine massive ranges of rock. By contrast, the beautiful Blue Mountains are covered by densely packed trees and are called ‘blue’ because of the mist of moisture that hovers over this elevated forest.
On the way, we visited a wild life park, where all the unique creatures that are associated with the largest island on earth can be encountered up close. It was a real thrill to see hopping kangaroos and diminutive flat-billed platypuses, to stroke baby wallabies and to gaze at koala bears sitting in eucalyptus trees, munching away. I have to admit that before we left, I visited the souvenir shop and bought a small cuddly koala bear for Jess.
I think you know where I’m going with this, but first let’s turn to the Torah. Last Shabbat we began reading the Book of Exodus – Sh’mot – with its tales of the enslavement of our ancestors to Pharaoh in Egypt, their remarkable liberation, and the beginning of their wilderness wanderings, dramatically shaped by their encounter with the Eternal at Mount Sinai.
The first major turning point in the story comes with Moses’ personal encounter with the Eternal – not on the top of a mountain, but rather, as we read in Exodus chapter 3, verse 2, at the foot of a mountain, at the burning bush that was not consumed by the flames.
The burning bush. As soon as I say those words at this time, our minds turn from a middle eastern desert scene over 3000 years ago to the burning bush fires that have been raging in southeast Australia – including, in the Blue Mountains. There, of course, the burning bushes have been consumed – and the fires have also consumed every living thing around them: koalas, kangaroos, wallabies. After three consecutive years of summer droughts, the raging fires have burned everything in their wake – and the blue, green, multicoloured landscape has been replaced by grey, charred remains.
We are shocked and horrified. The sight of wounded, traumatised koalas, their burnt paws wrapped in bandages so painful and distressing. But we have done this. Of course, not us, personally. But our wanton consumerism and profligate attitude to everything we consume; so much of it, so quickly dispensed with and disposed of as we move onto the next must-have item. But are we really to blame? After all, none of us one day decide to behave like this. We have been lured and trained by a global economy dedicated to profit that has harnessed every form of media, including, the World Wide Web, to stimulate our wants and then transform our wants into needs – and all in the name of the pursuit of happiness and the illusion of freedom that is actually a form of slavery.
Let’s return for a moment to the burning bush Moses encountered. Nothing much grows in the desert. The bush – the Hebrew word is s’neh – was a thorn-bush; compact, low-lying and rugged; perfectly suited for the super-dry desert conditions. The miracle of the story appears to be that bush burned but was not consumed by the flames. The real miracle was that Moses noticed. Just imagine: Moses was shepherding his father-in-law’s flock in the blinding light and heat of a desert day. Perhaps, he was wearing a cloth over his head, but he certainly didn’t have sunglasses. So, how come Moses noticed that ubiquitous desert resident, a lowly thorn-bush? We read at Exodus 3, verses 1 to 3:
Now Moses was shepherding the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock behind the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God, to Horev / Then the messenger of the Eternal appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of the bush; and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, but the bush was not consumed. /Then Moses said: ‘I will turn aside now, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.’
The ‘messenger’ of the Eternal – malach Adonai – often translated as ‘angel’, could only appear to Moses because he looked, because he turned aside from his shepherding, because he allowed himself to be apprehended.
The burning bush that Moses encountered came with a message to liberate the slaves. He was presented with a gigantic task, but the signpost to the great mission Moses was called on to perform was so subtle, he could so easily have missed it; he could so easily have not seen it and just walked on by. And if Moses had just walked on by, he would have continued to live out his days as a shepherd in Midian and the Exodus of the slaves might never have happened. And we wouldn’t be here to retell the tale.
But then, perhaps, had Moses failed to notice, after a while he would have been shown a bigger more obvious sign, one that he simply could not ignore. The burning bush fires in south-eastern Australia proclaim to us that we have missed all the singular burning thorn-bush signs of climate change and impending ecological disaster. So, is it too late to turn aside and notice? Have we missed our chance to take action and save the planet?
In this week’s Torah portion, the parashah Va-eira, which begins with a continuation of Moses’ encounter with the Eternal at the burning bush, we learn that persuaded to return to Egypt by four-fold promises of liberation, when Moses relayed the promises to the slaves, they were not prepared to listen. We read at Exodus chapter 6, verse 9:
Moses spoke thus to the Israelites, but they would not listen to Moses because of shortness of spirit and because of hard bondage – mi-kotzer ru’ach u’mei-avodah kashah
Is it surprising that after hundreds of years in servitude, the slaves could not take in the message that they were going to be liberated? So, prosperous as we are, what’s our excuse? Of course, unlike the message that Moses tried to deliver to the slaves, the one that we have refused to receive decade after decade is terrifying and doom-laden. And so, we have seen fit to bury our heads in the sand.
In the context of the prospect of ecological catastrophe, that saying isn’t just a cliché. On the contrary, it’s very apt. The longer we continue to bury our heads, the deeper and more widespread the sand will become. After all, we face not only raging fires and other consequences of extreme weather events, but also the increasing desertification of the planet.
There are understood to be eight major causes of desertification:
- Unsustainable agricultural techniques
- Unsustainable water management
- Overpopulation and overexploitation of natural resources
- Urbanisation and the development of tourism
- Famine, poverty and political instability
- Climate change
And the effects of desertification become progressively devastating:
- Vegetation is damaged or destroyed
- Soil becomes infertile
- Soil erosion gets worse
- There is increasing vulnerability to natural disasters
- Sources of drinking water become polluted
- There is a rise of famine, poverty and social conflicts – which leads to another effect:
- Mass migrations – and then in time:
- Collapses of civilisations – and the
- Extinction of species
Isn’t it amazing how much we now know about humanity’s destructive impact on the planet, and yet we continue to do so little? The enormous challenge of achieving global cooperation in the face of vested interests and resurgent nationalism cannot be underestimated. So, what can we do? Of course, we can reduce our own carbon footprint at home and in our communities – including, here at BHPS. We can also take collective action. The Torah relates that it took ten plagues – a concerted assault on Egypt – but eventually, not only was Pharaoh persuaded – the slaves were, too. As we read in the parashah Bo, Exodus chapter 12 (:39-41), after a sojourn of 430 years, they fled in such haste, there was no time for their dough to rise. The significance of this small detail is easily missed. It speaks of sudden flight, but also of the settled life that preceded the Exodus. The slaves inured to their slavery, not only toiled each day, they also went about the ordinary tasks of daily life; rearing children and baking bread. But finally, they knew they had to break free.
So, how long will we continue to go on with business as usual before we act? At the World Economic Forum at Davos this past week, Prince Charles, long-time green advocate, launched his ‘sustainable markets initiative’ for 2020 – the ‘super-year for kickstarting action.’ He presented a whole raft of suggestions for ‘putting people and planet at the heart’ of a sustainable economy and concluded with these words: ‘The only limit is our willingness to act and the time to act is now.’
The message is positive: we can avert disaster. It’s up to us. I’m going to conclude by turning again to the cute cuddly souvenir koala. If we don’t act soon to stop the damage we are doing to the planet, then in the future, assuming that a remnant does survive, all they will have to console them and remind them of the richness and beauty of their blue planet gone grey, will be cuddly toy versions of koala bears and all the other creatures that used to roam and make their home with us. So: let us take note of all the signs around us of ecological emergency and summon all our resources of intelligence, ingenuity, courage, will and hope to act now. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
25th January 2020 – 28th Tevet 5780
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